This weekend, I’ll join a group of several hundred business and philanthropic leaders brought together by Charles and David Koch to discuss how we can invest our time and effort to break down the barriers that prevent too many people from achieving the American Dream.
One of those barriers, among the greatest injustices of our time, is our broken criminal justice system.
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be part of another group, one brought together at the White House by President Trump that included federal and state officials, faith and grassroots leaders, and prison reform experts. We discussed ways to equip prisoners with the skills and opportunities needed for an honest second chance – to correct their course in life and return to society as productive, law-abiding citizens.
High on the agenda this weekend in California will be proposals to address what happens to former inmates when they leave prison and re-enter society.
A new initiative announced just this week, Safe Streets and Second Chances, will work with states – almost 90 percent of those incarcerated are in state or county facilities – to establish re-entry as something that starts day one of the prison sentence, with the goal of an individualized plan in place within 60 days of incarceration. Now, many rehabilitation programs wait until the soon-to-be former inmate is almost out the prison door. Too often, that’s too late.
Those programs should include substance abuse and psychiatric counseling for individuals with mental illnesses or drug addictions, as well as educational, literacy, and vocational training components.
The need is great. Right now, around 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. This is both a federal and a state problem. Both ends of the system are imprisoning people at historically high rates.
And all this is happening as crime rates have fallen. America’s streets are safer today than at any time in decades.
Of the 1.3 million state prison inmates in 2015, nearly 200,000 had as their most serious offense a drug charge. An astonishing 44,700 of those were for simple possession.
Almost all of those 1.3 million will eventually be released. What then?
Preparing incarcerated individuals for life after prison makes economic sense. We spend more than $80 billion a year for incarceration, three or four times what we spend on K-12 education, and we get very little in return for that investment. A reordering of priorities is overdue, one that will benefit former inmates, their families — an estimated 1.7 million children are growing up with a mother or father behind bars – and society at large.
We all know that formerly incarcerated individuals struggle to re-enter the workforce. Just having a criminal record can reduce the chances of an applicant receiving a callback or job offer by almost 50 percent. That’s one reason we have long supported ‘ban the box’ efforts aimed at removing questions about criminal records from job applications.
It is a policy that Koch Industries has adopted that has benefited both the company and the individuals with records seeking a second chance. We believe that employers should make the decision to ban the box and not have it mandated by the government. If the government wants to assist with re-entry, consistent with public safety concerns, it can reduce the number of regulations and laws that keep returning citizens from getting jobs, education, housing, and other essential needs.
Given that more than 95 percent of those incarcerated will return to society, we all have a vested interest in ensuring they come back better than they went into prison. The same kind of concerted efforts that have led to success in banning the box can yield results in helping former inmates re-enter society.
As we ponder the possibilities this weekend, the vision that we will keep in our minds is of the human cost of doing nothing. In many cases, we’re talking about people who face insurmountable barriers from the moment they are born, or people who made a single mistake and will pay for it for the rest of their lives. And we will remember that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Mark Holden is co-chairman of the Seminar Network.
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